Recently, Paul Mason's article "Ebooks are changing the way we read, and the way novelists write" in The Guardian raised a number of thought provoking questions for anyone interested in children’s books. Mason noted that ebooks are significantly changing the way adults read. He referenced a number of trends cited in Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World, written by Naomi Baron and published in February by The Oxford University Press.
In Words Onscreen, Baron explores how our reading habits are being shaped by a broad array of mobile devices and in turn how these shifts in reading ebooks are influencing the way authors write and publishers curate books for the marketplace. She acknowledges the benefits, including convenience and ease of access, that ebooks provide, while her research also finds that people are not reading as deeply and tend to prefer shorter works and books that don't require deep reflection or analysis.
Although her findings are based on recent changes in adult reading behaviors, her work also relates indirectly to children and their ability (or potential inability) to immerse themselves in long-form reading. As more young people shift to reading on mobile phones and tablets, one has to wonder how this move away from reading print books will impact their capacity to reflect thoughtfully on what they’ve read. For anyone interested in the future of children’s books, the challenge is how to package books for younger millennials in a meaningful way that enriches the experience of reading and doesn’t undermine the inherent joy of exploring a good book.
The ebook market for children’s books lags behind other genres such as novels, biographies or non-fiction. Over the last five years children have consistently demonstrated a preference for reading print books over ebooks. While the market for paperback books is relatively stable for now, we need to understand the implications behind these changes so that we can leverage these shifts in reading habits and shorter attention spans (that may have neurological consequences) to make it easier and more attractive for children to explore, comprehend and reflect on what they’ve read without compromising the reading experience. No small challenge and yet it seems to me a critical one to resolve, if we want to maintain the central role that books have traditionally played in enriching and influencing the exchange and discovery of new ideas.
Going forward, paperback books should continue to own a strong share of the children’s market for the foreseeable future over the next five to ten years, but it seems inevitable that more and more reading will take place on digital devices as market penetration grows and the price of e-readers, phones and tablets continue to decrease in real dollars. As this inevitable shift takes place, what role will print books play and how will our concept of a book change to meet these shifts in reading habits?
While reading has largely been a solitary experience over the history of the printed book, this shift to connectivity may lead to digital books becoming more of a social experience for the next generation of readers. In the future, immersion in an ebook may become a much different experience than simply curling up on a couch with a good paperback. Mason’s closing paragraph has stayed with me, and applying his insights about immersion and the social aspects of this technology may hold the keys to the future:
"To a kid reading Pynchon on a Galaxy 6 this summer, it has to compete with Snapchat and Tinder, plus movies, games and music. Sure, that kid can no longer see what other people are reading on the beach – whether its Proust or 50 Shades – but they can see in great detail what people in their social network are recommending. Life itself has become more immersive. That’s what writers are really up against.”